In the year 2010, when I was teaching at the Harvard School of Government, I published my great work, The Kabuki of State Symbols. Now, don’t pretend that you’ve read my book, because we both know you haven’t, and that’s ﬁne.
I didn’t write my book for praise or acclaim, and only rarely do I check my sales rank at Amazon.com.
But I did happen to be on that site one morning in the summer of 2010. I saw the same three reader reviews I had posted under various names in order to avoid confusion, and the one screed by that Stanford nimrod who doesn’t know the first thing about Kabuki or state symbols. I also saw the following:
Kabuki of State Symbols—Four stars (out of five)
This enigmatic praise piqued my curiosity. I did a search and found that “Bill C.” of Chappaqua had read and blurbed almost 600 books in the prior year, usually posting his opinions between two and four in the morning. The range of this Bill C. was astonishingly broad and sort of dorky too. There were books on dog care and rose care and grooming your cat; on jazz, math, shoes, teeth, Buddhism, and model railroading; on losing your love handles and building a great golf swing; on Degas, Hawthorne, Plato, James and Dolley Madison, James and Marilyn Monroe, the humidor as gift, twenty haunted houses of the Hudson River Valley, Cooking the Malaysian Way, So Now You Own a Table Saw, and, yes, my own humble study of Kabuki and state symbols. Who was this mysterious Bill C.—this shaggy (so I pictured) omnivore?
A few months later, in December, I received an answer in the form of a phone call from Reed Blajasevic, an old friend from my Fulbright days in Paris. Bill Clinton had just been elected mayor of New York. Reed, by then a lawyer at a big firm in Manhattan, was advising the transition. Reed said, “He loved your book. He says it’s the best thing ever written on Kabuki and state symbols. He wants you on the team.”
Chelsea, now married to the rock musician Beck, lived on a farm in Oregon, raising llamas and a flock of little Becklets.
No one was really sure why Bill Clinton had decided to run for mayor to begin with. There were rumors of various “arrangements,” murky quid pro quos, but the simplest seemed to be that Bill Clinton, a decade out of power, was bored and perhaps a little lonely. His wife, a U.S. senator, was often out of town. His daughter, Chelsea, now married to the rock musician Beck, lived on a farm in Oregon, raising llamas and a flock of little Becklets.
Whatever Clinton’s reasons for seeking the job, he planned to have an impact as the mayor of New York. Reed said that Clinton’s City Hall would be something special, something new, a gathering of Ivy-flavored urban-studies wonks, every résumé studded with advanced degrees and prestigious grants, with Watsons and Rhodeses and MacArthur Geniusships, a geek army on a bold Tolkienish quest—call it the Fellowship of the Bunting. Who wouldn’t be inspired by such talk? A week after Reed’s call, I resigned from Harvard and moved to New York City.
My title in the new administration was deputy commissioner of the Department of Marine Aviation. But my duties were, like Bill Clinton himself, rather more protean. I recall one afternoon during our second summer in power, I received an urgent message: Clinton needed me ASAP. He was in Queens, speaking at a Baptist tabernacle in Hollis. I drove out to meet him.
The mood in the administration was rather glum just then. We were suffering, I think, from the first bout of scandal fatigue. Scandals were viral for Clinton somehow. Most of these were puffed up from nothing by the Bill-o-phobic right, whose hatred for the man remained a solid 50 decibels above psychotic. In our first month in office, there had been the revelation of a taped conversation between two party captains from the Dinkins wing of the machine. The captains claimed that they had persuaded Bill to hold the seat through 2014, by which point young Adam Clayton Powell IX, the rising star of Harlem, would be finished doing time for that mail-fraud conviction and be ready to jump back into the mix. Outer-borough Jews and Catholics went nuts over this tape. Mayor Bill just smiled, waved at people from parades, and the thing blew over.
A greater source of strife was the rivalry between Bill Clinton and Rudy Giuliani. Rudy had, of course, been elected president of the United States in 2008. Having moved to the national spotlight, President Rudy now seemed to view the city much as an ex-girlfriend who, having loved him and “lost” him, should never love or date or even have a functional relationship with anyone else ever again. Enraged by Clinton’s effortless rapport with most New Yorkers, Rudy rained numerous punishing blows upon the boroughs, cutting matching funds for the city’s bid for the Olympics, declaring all of Staten Island to be a “National Wilderness Area” and ruling it directly from the Oval Office.
Clinton, largely powerless against the White House, noshed at ethnic festivals and taped TV commercials urging people from Utah and Ohio to come to the Big Apple, see Times Square and Chinatown, catch a Broadway show, spend a night under the stars at Shakespeare in the Park. Shakespeare in the Park was Clinton’s great escapade. Being a natural performer and big ham, he was invited to do cameos, the mellow dads of Shakespeare’s many female wits, the easygoing dukes of the mid-weight comedies. Clinton’s playing Shakespeare was a tourist magnet, not different in spirit from casting TV stars to do the Bard. President Rudy, hammy in a different way, dark instead of light, stewed and schemed, saying that the fact that he had never been invited to do Shakespeare in the Park showed that he had not been loved enough as mayor.
Driving out to Queens to meet Bill Clinton that day in July, I made slow progress through the heavy traffic. I had forgotten that it was the afternoon of the Olympic-marathon final. New York had won its bid for the 2012 Summer Olympics. Holding the Olympics in the city may have seemed like a great idea when the bids were submitted in 2004, but as the mega-international spectacular drew closer, New Yorkers started having second thoughts. Hosting the Olympics would cost several hundred million dollars, and wasn’t this money better spent on—well, anything other than motel-style housing for Belgian power lifters? And what was the point? New York wasn’t Seoul or Salt Lake City. We didn’t need the Olympics to put our city on the map. New York was the one place on earth already bigger than the Olympics.
But New York had no choice—it would play host. A huge Olympic Village was constructed on empty bits of Rikers Island. The early rowing trials were conducted in the Hell Gate section of the upper East River until the tragic loss of the Dutch four-man skull. Skeet and riflery made an interesting addition to the streets of the South Bronx. The soccer matches happened in Prospect Park with Mexican guys’ T-shirts as the corner posts, just like any other weekend morning in that park. The whole extravaganza had come off reasonably well.
I was supposed to meet the BRT—the mayor’s private train—at the Jamaica stop on the A line, but Grand Central Parkway was shut down due to the women’s marathon. I took the side streets, arriving at the platform in Jamaica after three.
The BRT was my greatest contribution to the administration. In the past, mayors of New York had traveled modestly. But Clinton, big restless child that he was, traveled like a president, 15, 20, 25 events a day sometimes, at all times and corners of the city. An NYPD chopper would be the fastest means, of course, but the helicopter was a rotten symbol—aloof, imperial. Motorcades were slow in traffic. Police boats would be picturesque and fun but only practical for points along the waterfront.
I puzzled for a time before I hit upon the answer: trains. Trains mean power, movement, drive—Truman’s whistlestop in ’48, Lincoln’s body going home, something mystical and grand. Think of Elvis:
Train I ride
Sixteen coaches long
And then there is the subway, graffiti and hard seats, the crush of bodies. What could be more New York? Clinton loved the concept (the Elvis reference clinched it), and after that he roared around the city underground in a private subway train. This was Bill’s Rapid Transit, the BRT.
I caught the BRT in Jamaica along with a team to do debate prep. On the benches of the subway car, two sets of lawyers were engaging in a staring contest. The lawyers on the left were Clinton’s in-house people, my buddy Reed Blajasevic and his junior litigati. The lawyers on the right were either special prosecutors or ordinary ones. Looking at them, I found it hard to tell.One prong of President Giuliani’s attack on His Billness was the time-tested method of death by subpoena. According to the many leaks, a secret federal grand jury in New York was focusing on two potential areas of wrongdoing. First was Clinton’s claim in Chapter 9 of My Life, his wildly successful 2004 autobiography, that he had never really wanted to mislead anyone during the Whitewater probe of the late 1990s. Second was the allegation that in 2005 and 2006 Clinton crossed state lines for purposes of cheating on his golf game. Like the old Ken Starr investigations, prosecutors had formed two investigatory teams. One team would attempt to establish that Clinton had lied in Chapter 9 about lying in the late 1990s when questioned about real-estate transactions from the 1970s. The second team would focus on his golf game.
I pushed into the next car, our dining car aboard the BRT. Halfway down, toward the middle set of doors, a Russian guy named Boris ran a true New York–style hot-dog cart. Boris swore he changed the water at least once a week.
He said, “What you want?”
I said, “Your so-called food disgusts me. One dog with mustard, please.”
Boris fished a dog out of the water, making vendoresque chitchat as he did. Like any good New Yorker, I ignored him.
“On weekend, I no work,” he said. “Sit home and watch the porno tape.”
I said, “Yeah, that’s great.”
I ate the dog in four bites and was immediately ill, just as I would have been if I bought the dog on 57th Street. I loved that last touch of authenticity.
I moved on to the last car, Bill Clinton’s private sanctum.
Clinton was at the far end, eating a precariously tall pastrami sandwich and doing the Times crossword while working with his line coach, a Phyllis Diller look-alike, her hair in multicolored twists. Clinton had his beloved table saw set up and every so often paused his multitasking to cut a two-by-four in half or rip a big fancy swirl-cut in a sheet of plywood. I moved toward the mayor, stepping over the half-done pieces of furniture, a table with three legs, a backless cabinet. Random other people wandered around him, secretaries, interns, clerks, and police bodyguards. Reed Blajasevic and the prosecutors came up from the back car negotiating some procedural nicety. In the corner was a TV. The women’s marathon was on. Clinton said, “I’m in a bad mood.”
He looked a little woolly, as if he hadn’t slept particularly well the night before. Senator Hillary, burnishing her creds as stateswoman and pothole politician par excellence, was off on a fact-finding tour of Buffalo and sub-Saharan Africa. The mayor always looked a bit forlorn when his wife was out of town.
The line coach was reading promptingly from a battered paperback: “ ‘Or like a whale.’ And your line is … ?”
Clinton said, “My daughter died last night. Ophelia—she dies every night. That’s why I’m in a bad mood.”
Clinton, bored with Shakespeare, started building a chest of drawers as he watched the marathon on the little television. Three hundred of the world’s best female distance runners had started an hour earlier in Far Rockaway. They did two laps around the runways of JFK then struck out across northern Queens. The leaders were a Dane and fourteen Kenyans. The rest were strung out along Bell Boulevard in the brutal New York City heat. The police believed that most of them would eventually be found.
Clinton’s train slipped into a tunnel. It was dark a moment, then the lights came on. The TV flickered back to life.
Reed Blajasevic said they were ready to get the deposition started.
“Sir,” said the first prosecutor, “are you familiar with the 7th hole at the Bonnie Brae Country Club in Hackensack, New Jersey?”
Bill Clinton looked shifty suddenly, eyes darting toward his lawyers, hands fidgeting in his lap. He said, “What do you mean?”
Reed Blajasevic jumped in. “The question is outrageously misleading and confusing!”
“Sir,” said the first prosecutor, his voice rising now, “yes or no, have you ever played the scenic, fabled 7th at old Bonnie Brae?”
Clinton was a cornered beast. He said, “Yes—I mean no.” He bit his lip, desperate with panic. “In what time frame do you mean?”
Reed was waving his arms. “No more questions, damn it! I’m going to the judge!”
The lawyers rose, recessing to the back car for their 47th conference call with the judge.
Bill Clinton slumped on the bench, pale and drained. Lawyers were his kryptonite. I grabbed the pastrami sandwich, jammed it in his hand. I jammed the crossword puzzle in his other hand. I handed a two-by-four to the acting coach and yelled at her to saw something. I was doing something nearly cruel, propping up Bill Clinton like a scarecrow in a field. I couldn’t stand the sight of him deflated.
Bill Clinton slowly rallied. He heard the saw sawing and raised his big panther’s head. He got up from the bench, took the wood from the acting coach, and finished the cut himself.
He turned to me. “Charles, I need you to get me into the owner’s box at Yankee Stadium.”
I groaned. We had been over this before.
Clinton knew that he was asking the impossible. In Clinton’s battle with Rudy Giuliani for the soul of New York City, both men had a base of power. Clinton had the unions, Manhattan glamour-lovers, and blacks and Latinos. Giuliani had the PBA, the head waiter at Elaine’s, and the New York Yankees. Though leader of the free world, Giuliani had found the time to attend all 81 Yankee home games the year before plus a full schedule of 27 intrasquad and Florida spring-training games, sitting in the same seat for every game up in the Bronx, the private box of the fabled Yankee owner George Steinbrenner. Now 83 years old, Steinbrenner was living as a recluse in his vast and rambling Tampa Xanadu, where, rumor had it, his aged and broken-down racehorses and right fielders wandered the grounds aimlessly. This season, Giuliani’s game attendance had been a tad spottier, but he remained the public face of the Pinstripes.
Clinton had a pout on this. “I’m mayor of this city. Me. It’s a signature iconic act for the mayor of New York to go to the Bronx and don that old blue cap with the interlocking NY and all the history and aura that go with it. My mayorship won’t be complete until I’ve made this pilgrimage.”
I said, “What about the circus? The circus is iconic.”
Bill Clinton proceeded to have one of his famous tantrums, the empty tirades of a thousand words in which everything and everyone has let him down. His tantrums fascinate me, like a sped-up movie of a blooming rose, only running in reverse, fury collapsing into self-pity and then into silence. Anger spent, Clinton bit his sandwich, chewing meditatively.
I said, “How about the Mets?”
Clinton just ignored me. Reed Blajasevic and the other lawyers filed back from their conference call with the judge. I repaired to a corner of the subway car, letting the mayor return to his carpentry, acting lessons, and deposition.
Getting Clinton into Yankee Stadium, the very Jerusalem of Giulianism, would not be easy. First I called a friend who was friends with friends of friends of Giuliani’s scheduler. I was able to confirm that President and Mrs. Rudy would be stuck in Washington that night, hosting a state dinner for what was left of the old Iraqi Governing Council. Next I called a guy named Sallie Dogs from Arthur Avenue who’s been known to do a little scalping. I like Sallie quite a bit, but it’s annoying to deal with him because he insists that the FBI is tapping his phone. It’s a question of prestige among Sallie’s peer group up in the Bronx.
“Sallie, hi. It’s Charles O’Malley.”
He said, “Sssh. No names.”
“Sallie, for the thousandth time, nobody is tapping you. You’re not that important. Nobody would bother. Just accept it. It doesn’t make you a bad person.”
I told him that I needed Yankee tickets for that night, the best that he could get.
Sallie said, “How many?”
I did a quick head count of the mayor’s entourage.
“Thirty-six,” I said. “No, wait a second.” I called over to the prosecutors, “When do you guys think you’ll be finished?”
“When justice is done,” said the lead prosecutor.
“Do you think it’ll be done by tonight?” I asked. “Or do you need to come to the ball game with us, too? Ah, screw it. Sallie, better make that an even 40.”
We stopped at Canal Street on the 6 line. A team of aides came onboard to do debate prep. Clinton had rashly agreed to an afternoon debate with President Rudy’s chosen standard-bearer for Giulianism in New York. In a typically shrewd move, Giuliani had bypassed the existing dullish stock of conservative pols in the city, drafting instead an intriguing and oddly beloved figure, the subway dermatologist Dr. Jonathan Zizmor. Dr. Z had almost 100 percent name recognition and no attackable philosophy other than a deep belief in fruit peels and a lifelong opposition to dry, oily, or tired-looking skin. Rudy was positioning Dr. Z to run for mayor in 2014.
As the train hurtled up the East Side, Clinton prepped for his showdown with Dr. Z. We arrived at the 92nd Street Y just after 4 p.m., late but not so late as to seem really late by Clinton standards. The curtains parted at one end of the stage, and Mayor Bill stepped into the spotlight to a general, if somewhat perfunctory, applause. The curtains parted at the other end, and out stepped Dr. Zizmor, the famous Dr. Z, in a long white lab coat, with the odd half-smile, chin tipped up, familiar to every subway rider. The cheers for Dr. Z were from a smaller segment of the crowd, though louder, more heartfelt.
The moderator said, “Our first question is for Mayor Clinton—”
The questions had to do with the city’s bond policies in light of planned charter amendments, yada yada yada, a fat softball for Bill Clinton. Technical questions offered him the chance to do what he did best, what he did better than any politician of his generation—to convey his total mastery of the mechanics of the state, while nonetheless distilling each issue down to its plain essence, its moral, its morality. It was a vintage Clinton moment.
The moderator said, “Dr. Zizmor, your reply?”
The slightly goofy dermatologist fumbled at the podium. He smiled sheepishly. He said he wasn’t, like, some big kind of expert or anything. He said that to him, government was like the skin and the great people of the city were the person underneath the skin. He knew plenty of people who had chronic facial rashes or severe acne scarring or some other terrible skin issue but who underneath were good people, fine people, beautiful people. What he wanted was to apply the equivalent of his patented fruit peel and all-pore nutra-cleansing methodology to give the skin of the state a healthy, youthful, and long-lasting glow.
He grinned again and people cheered and I thought, My God, they love Dr. Z.
After the debate, we ordered Chinese food for everyone except the prosecutors, then took the subway crosstown on the S line and up to the Papp Theatre in the Park where Clinton would be reprising his extremely popular Polonius in Hamlet.
Early in the third act, I called Sallie at the Yankee game. He said, “You better hurry. It’s 6-5, Boston. We’re just about to start the seventh-inning stretch.”
I glanced at my watch and did some quick calculations. In the old days, the seventh-inning stretch had been little more than a ritualized shaking of the limbs while the PA played “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” the same at every park across the land. After the attack on the Twin Towers in 2001, however, the Yankees had added Kate Smith’s rendition of “God Bless America,” a military color guard, a flyover by F-16s, or a joint appearance by Liberty and Freedom, a pair of tame bald eagles who arrived wearing tiny executioner-type hoods, on giant staff-like perches. Since Rudy’s rise to the White House, the Yankee seventh-inning stretch had become ever more impressive and ambitious. There were marching bands and precision-drill teams, historical pageants and costume dramas, instructive one-act plays with titles like “That First Thanksgiving” or “Mr. Fulton’s Steamboat.” There were fireworks and floats and a flag as big as the whole outfield unfurled and held aloft in the hands of a thousand children from the Boys and Girls Clubs of Rockland and Sullivan counties. The fans loved it. And who could be against patriotism, in times like these? Nobody complained that the seventh-inning stretch now ran a solid hour. If the seventh-inning stretch was only starting now, I figured we could make it to the Yankee game in plenty of time.
I must say, I thought Clinton was only so-so as Polonius that night, a little too broad, a little too much mugging. Bill Clinton was obviously way overextended, trying to be everything to everyone, and it was starting to show. He muffed a line or two, and during one of the grand scenes at court, reached into his heavy robe and pulled out the crossword puzzle as Hamlet’s mother made a speech.Clinton was stabbed behind the arras just after ten-thirty. We started for the Stadium, stopping only briefly to pick up three dozen pizzas.
We made it to the Stadium at the perfect and climactic moment in the game. The Yankees had the bases loaded, Derek Jeter at the plate.
It had been a long, hot day. But the night was cool. There was a breeze across the Bronx, and it was gorgeous in the Stadium. I sat in a row with Clinton and his bodyguards, Boris the gross hot-dog guy, and the acting coach. In the next row were more bodyguards, Reed, and his litigati. Behind them were the prosecutors who would be permitted by court order to ask one question per inning, two if the game went into extra innings.
The prosecutors tried to corner Clinton on some golfing ambiguity, but Reed was keeping them at bay. Clinton took out the crossword puzzle and put on his reading glasses.
He said, “You know, it’s funny, Charles. People think I’m lucky. Well, if I’m so lucky, how come I’ve never gotten a foul ball at a ball game? Balls get hit to everyone around me. But to me—to ol’ Bill Clinton? Nope, never.”
I started to say something just as the pitcher pitched. Jeter swung. I heard a crack. The baseball, lashed off to the left, streaked directly at Bill Clinton’s head. Clinton watched it come, tranquil and unmoving, cool as Cary Grant. The ball missed him by a fraction of an inch, hitting the lead prosecutor in the face just behind us. Cops and ushers came running over to the prosecutor’s crumpled bleeding form, calling for a stretcher on their radios.
Turning to the crossword, Clinton said, “See what I mean?”